The cash-strapped turn to 'urban mining' for a golden Christmas

The Baltimore Sun

With three children and a mother's desire to give them the perfect Christmas, Dionne Smith might have joined the post-Thanksgiving rush to the stores this weekend. Instead, the Woodlawn resident headed in exactly the opposite direction - to a place that was quiet rather than frenzied, where she would sell rather than spend.

She arrived with a little Ziploc-type bag of gold jewelry; she left with $75.

"It's going to go in the bank," Smith declared.

It was the only kind of Black Friday that made sense to some this year, when the traditional opening day of the holiday shopping season coincided with an economy that continues to falter. Smith was among those who bypassed the malls in favor of, in her case, the Hilton Pikesville, where Get Gold Cash was paying cold hard cash for jewelry.

At a time when stock prices are plummeting and the housing and credit markets are frozen, gold suddenly seems like one of the few tangible assets left.

"Gold never disappears," Craig R. Nusinov, the company's president, said. "It's always worth something in the market."

There's something so basic, so elemental about unloading something so personal - rings and necklaces, bangles and bracelets - not as jewelry but as metal. Just about everything Nusinov and his staff buys, unless it's a Rolex watch or a unique piece of jewelry, will be melted down for the gold.

Nusinov, whose family has been in the jewelry business in the Baltimore area for several generations, has seen people offer up "everything you can imagine" at this point.

"We buy a lot of teeth - caps, crowns, bridges - as long as it's gold," he said. "Surprisingly, a tooth could bring in $50."

In a bare-bones meeting room of the hotel, one of three locations where GGC set up shop this weekend, a trickle of people came in to see what they could get for the mostly unused or broken jewelry that they had dug up from back drawers and forgotten boxes in their homes.

It was a glimpse into the mind-set of these disquieting times, as telling as those monthly consumer-confidence figures. It wasn't as desperate as you might imagine - no one tearfully pulled off a wedding ring to make this month's rent - and yet the sense of needing to make rather than spend money, to unload rather than to acquire, was palpable.

Still, there was a certain festivity, as people walked out with smiles and some crisp bills.

"It was all in this teeny tiny box," Juanita Logan, a retired federal worker from York, Pa., marveled of the old jewelry that netted her $145. "I'm going to put it in the bank and go home and look for some more to sell."

Nusinov started what he calls the "Roadshow" - after PBS' Antiques Roadshow - about 18 months ago, setting up shop in hotel rooms in the seven states in which his company is licensed to do business.

Weighing a customer's bracelet and chain, juggling a calculator and a cell phone on which he checked the current price of the metal - $820 an ounce on Friday - Nusinov made an offer that persuaded a woman to give up a bracelet from her mother. She would use the money to buy furniture.

It was a fairly light crowd on this day after Thanksgiving - nothing like the lines that have formed in the past when gold was going for as much as $1,000 an ounce - but Nusinov's buyers were hopeful things would pick up as the weekend progressed. As the economy continues to worsen, more and more companies have emerged to buy up whatever gold might be out there, Nusinov said, so the competition has increased.

"A lot of the low-hanging fruit has already been picked," he said. "But there's still a lot of gold, a lot of silver out there."

It was Smith's second time selling off jewelry, and she and her partner, L'Tanya Pulliam, were pleased to have a little more to stash in the bank in preparation for the holidays. They both have jobs - Smith is a business coordinator for Verizon, Pulliam is a nurse - but with groceries and bills seemingly going up by the day, the upcoming holidays were looming as an extra strain on their finances.

"We're trying to save up for Christmas with the kids," said Smith, who was trading in two necklaces, a pair of earrings and another earring that was missing its mate. "We want to make sure that Christmas is everything it should be for them."

Nusinov's buyers - including his mother - weighed the items offered, used magnets to tell solid from plated gold and looked through magnifying glasses for carat markings.

"We call it urban mining," Nusinov said.

For some, the payout is sweetened by the fact that they are recycling old gold rather than contributing to further mining of new gold. Some of the gold that Nusinov sells for melting down eventually will be made into other jewelry that will be identified as recycled rather than newly mined gold. Nusinov also hosts fundraisers at hospitals and other companies, where employees can bring in their gold and he'll make a contribution, a percentage of his take, to their charity or United Way effort.

Not everything that glitters turns out to be gold, and sometimes Nusinov ends up as the bearer of bad news.

"I've disappointed a lot of people unintentionally - women whose engagement rings they thought were diamonds turned out to be cubic zirconia or white sapphire," he said.

But even that can turn out to have a silver - if not necessarily sterling silver - lining.

"Some women will say," Nusinov said, " 'Well, one more reason to have broken up with him.' "

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